He has many names—“The Closer,” “Black Mamba,” “Lord of the Rings”—but in this City of Angels where he reigns as king, he is simply known as “Kobe.” This year Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers took home yet another NBA championship, but this one in particular—No. 5 for Kobe—may have been the sweetest. After being sent home empty-handed by the Boston Celtics two years ago, Kobe and the Purple and Gold got the revenge they had been waiting for. It’s the stuff of sports fantasy, really: the Celtics vs. the Lakers—one of sports’ greatest rivalries—in a game that came down to the final minutes, seconds even. And it was game seven, no less.
Born In Philadelphia, Kobe’s path was not the typical one for a basketball prodigy. His father, Joe “Jelly Bean” Bryant—a former professional basketball player for the Philadelphia 76ers—moved his family to Italy to play the game abroad when Kobe was just six. Kobe would learn to speak Italian fluently, develop a fondness for soccer and, of course, discover his own incomparable talent on a basketball court. Eventually Kobe would return to Pennsylvania and become a high school basketball star, leading him to forgo college and become the 13th pick in the 1996 NBA Draft. After being chosen by the Charlotte Hornets, he was traded to the Lakers—a team he loved as a child, a team he now carries on his broad shoulders. Last season, Kobe captured his second consecutive finals MVP distinction and the Lakers’ 16th title in franchise history.
We caught up with the married father of two daughters during the off-season to talk about the game, the future and his desire for a sixth championship.
LOS ANGELES CONFIDENTIAL: You used this off-season to get well in terms of a knee issue you had surgery for and a broken finger. How are you feeling now?
KOBE BRYANT: I’m feeling pretty good; I didn’t do much this summer. I just relaxed and had a little surgery, but I’m feeling really good and well rested. And a little bit of therapy got my leg strong enough to start getting in shape.
LAC: You’ve won five NBA championship titles, but this last one came down to game seven, and it was against the Celtics. The Lakers vs. the Celtics is a legendary rivalry. Where does that title—that win— rank for you in your mind?
KB: That was No. 1 for me because it was so hard. It was definitely one of those heavyweight slugfest rounds. We decided we wanted to go in for the kill, and it was tough, but it was so much fun because of it.
LAC: And fun to watch. You have a contract with the Lakers through the 2013-2014 season. How much further beyond that do you see yourself playing with the Lakers?
KB: I’m just going to wait and see I guess. I’ve been fortunate enough in my career so far that I haven’t had any major injuries, and hopefully that continues and helps me so when those four years are up, I can sit back and make the decision of my own accord and not because of a physical ailment.
LAC: Your next championship win would be your sixth and would tie Michael Jordan’s record. How hungry are you for that?
KB: I’m hungry for the next one just as I was for the last one; it doesn’t change. It doesn’t increase; it doesn’t decrease—it just stays the same for me. Every year is a new year to me; that’s how I look at it. I don’t approach the season as winning the third one in a row or anything like that, I just approach it as a new season altogether.
LAC: You just start from the beginning again, right?
KB: That’s how you got to be with it, and that keeps things fresh and chill. It’s not like you carry things over from the season before; you just leave it where it ends. At the end of the day, if we’re fortunate enough to win again, the end result is winning three in a row, but the process of it is just to win one.
LAC: So, coach Phil Jackson announced he’s returning next season. Were you at all concerned he might not?
KB: Oh yeah, extremely. There were times when I thought, This is definitely his last run. But I was very, very excited when he told me he was going to come back. He kinda touched on this being his last run, so I’m excited and honored to be able to play with his team.
LAC: How essential to the team’s success do you believe Jackson’s leadership is?
KB: It’s extremely critical. [The team] has been a part of him since 2000, so the execution of the game stems from his coaching, from the way he views the game, the way he teaches the game. We all have those same philosophies; we have those same beliefs; we play with the same kind of poise. It starts with him; it’s a process that started 10 years ago.
LAC: You grew up in Italy and speak fluent Italian. How do you believe that’s shaped the man you are today?
KB: I think if anything it gave me a 360-degree view of the world, in terms of believing that everything’s possible and believing there’s a bigger world out there. I didn’t grow up with blinders on. I grew up believing I could accomplish anything. In first grade, when I was six years old, I went to an Italian school. Growing up and looking back on those kinds of things, I think it can’t help but broaden things for you.
“At the end of the day, if we’re fortunate enough to win again, the end result is winning three in a row, but the process is just to win one.”
LAC: Do you dream in Italian or English?
KB: I think both actually. [Italian has] been a part of me for so long, but I have to tell you, I have to brush up on my Italian skills. I feel really dumb. I went to school there from first grade all the way up to seventh grade—in an Italian school system—and now I’ve forgotten so much of it. I feel like I’ve done a serious injustice to all my teachers.
LAC: You’ve grown up on the court. Can you tell us any life lessons you’ve learned through basketball?
KB: I think the biggest lesson is how to think externally. In other words, looking at other people and things they’re going through and being able to kind of help them through various situations—whether it’s on the court or off the court, just kind of managing personalities. I think the thing I’ve learned to do and the thing that’s changed the most from my younger playing days to where I am now is just being able to manage the team. I’ve been playing basketball since I was two, so I’ve learned so much from the game, which is what I try to teach kids now when I’m at clinics and camps. There are so many life lessons that can be learned through the game. So you’re not preaching to kids, you’re teaching them the game. But through it they learn selflessness; they learn about leadership; they learn about healthy competition; they learn about hard work, attention to detail and so on and so on.
LAC: You’ve won five rings and an Olympic gold medal, and you are the leading scorer in Lakers franchise history. What continues to motivate you now?
KB: Just the love of the game. I’ve never played for anything else but that. As a consequence of that, I wind up working hard, but I do it because I truly enjoy it. To be honest, I just love the game of basketball, and I’m constantly looking for ways to improve, but that all stems from the fact that I enjoy what I do.
LAC: We have to talk about the big news: LeBron James going to Miami. What are you anticipating for this season with LeBron being on the Heat?
KB: I anticipate they’ll do great. I think they have a marvelous team. I think they’ve put together a great crew, so all in all, I’m just happy for him.
“When I go out there and play, I’m just ready. I know what’s coming before it comes, and then it’s a matter of making the shot or making the right play.”
LAC: There was so much hoopla around him going to Miami, and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s reaction. Do you have any thoughts on that?
KB: Not at all. While all that was going on, I was at a basketball camp for kids in Santa Barbara, so it was kind of tough to shift my attention or whatever. I know [James] personally, and with [the Heat] getting Chris Bosh, I’m just happy for them because they seem happy with the choices they’ve made, so I’m pulling for them to do well.
LAC: Basketball season is so long, and you do so much traveling. When it’s the off-season, do you get time to relax?
KB: Oh yeah, a lot of time. We did a little trip this summer out to Montana and went fly-fishing and kicked back and relaxed, and we weren’t moving around much at all. We have days when we do that; we have trips when we do that. We made the summer schedule so that when I’m doing work, I do it in short bursts, so it’s not a long, dragged out kind of thing. If I have to have a business meeting or a business trip, I knock that out really quick in a couple of days and then I’m back and relaxing—we try not to stretch it out too much.
LAC: Is fly-fishing something you’re into?
KB: I enjoy doing it. I just started this summer, and I had a bunch of trout get away from me.
LAC: Are there any pregame rituals you always do?
KB: I don’t really have a ritual—my ritual is just preparation. There are songs I listen to, artists I listen to: I love Kanye West; I’m a big fan of Drake and Jay-Z obviously, but I don’t really have a ritual. Oh, and Lady Gaga, too.
LAC: When it’s the final moments of a game, you have the ball in your hand and the clock is ticking down, what’s going through your head?
KB: I think before I go out there on the floor—I think about the defense. When I go out there and play, I’m just ready. I know what’s coming before it comes, and then it’s a matter of making the shot or making the right play.
LAC: Your dad hadn’t seen you play in person for five years, and he came to last season’s playoffs. Tell us what that meant to you.
KB: It was cool. He got to watch me play and see me do what I do now—in my prime. LAC